The Real Unexpurgated Story of the Baby Shoes Which Were Sold Unused
by Camille LaGuire
THE YOUNG WOMAN who entered the offices of the Poolitstown Gazette was of a strapping height and firm demeanor. She was dressed all in stern black, which set off her pale skin and blue eyes. Mr. Bandiwilt, the editor of the Gazette, looked her over and came to the conclusion that she was a woman of strong opinions, and might be there to sell him on the concept of temperance, or perhaps woman suffrage, or perhaps both.
"I wish to place an advertisement in your newspaper," said the young woman.
"Ah, yes, of course," he said with some relief. "Please sit down, Miss...."
"Whitley. Olivia Whitley," she said, and she sat. He picked up a pen and leaned forward.
"And the advertisement is for...?"
"Baby shoes," she said. "I have some baby shoes to sell. Several pair. Never used. The ad should say that."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," said Mr. Bandiwilt, realizing that he must have missed the meaning of the severe black clothing.
"What?" said the woman looking confused.
"For your loss," he added indicating her dress.
"Oh, that," she said, looking down at her own skirts. "Yes, it was a loss, I suppose, but she was very old. Eighty-six, and every bit a bossy old bother to the very end. Still we will miss her--"
"Ah, I thought--"
"You thought what?"
"Well, that you'd lost a child."
"Of course not! Heavens, if I had lost a child I would have corrected you when you called me Miss."
"I... yes, I suppose."
"Really whatever were you thinking?"
"Well, if they're shoes meant for a child, and you're selling them new...."
"I didn't say they were new. I said they were never used."
Mr. Bandiwilt sat back for a moment and considered whether to ask and compound his offense or to simply apologize and take the ad down. She didn't, however, seem to be offended, and he was a newspaperman.
"Pardon me if this is none of my business, but how did these old shoes come to never used?"
"Oh, that was simply a question of whether my father had large feet or small feet."
"They were your father's shoes?"
"Oh, no. No. These are girl's shoes. Besides why would my father not wear his shoes?"
An aggravating woman. Mr. Bandiwilt paused and considered again whether he ought to press on, and decided he might as well.
"Would you mind, then, explaining to me what the size of your father's feet had to do with a set of girl's baby shoes?"
Miss Whitely cocked her head and gave him a surprisingly sly smile.
"It's a long story, and my poor departed aunt would be very upset if I told it to you," she said. "Are you sure you want to hear it?"
"I am a newspaperman," said Mr. Bandiwilt. "I love to hear long stories which upset elderly aunts."
* * * * *
THE MAN GENERALLY considered to be my father (said Miss Whitley) was named Johnny Whitley. He was the only son of a wealthy man, the owner of Whitley and Oshman Textiles. Now just Oshman Rugs, but I'm sure you've heard of them. The Whitley family has always been rather small-boned and weak. Johnny's mother died in childbirth, and he himself was a sickly child.
Now, Johnny married a woman named Sylvia when they were both very young. She was a sweet thing, but taller than Johnny, and I've heard tell the marriage wasn't a great match, but it never had much chance to blossom. Johnny went off to serve in the war, but of course he was rejected for being too scrawny. He was so offended that he went east to the big city and took a job as assistant to one of the war photographers, just to prove he was valiant and useful.
As it happened, the riverboat he was on in traveling to the battle lines never reached its destination. The war came up to meet it, and the boat was sunk, losing all hands. Johnny was never found and it was assumed he was dead.
Except he wasn't.
He was merely terrified and humiliated, and he swam ashore and headed back for the city. He didn't want to go home. He wanted a new life, and he so made one for himself as a photographer, and did quite well for himself.
He had a mistress whom he very much loved. She was an acrobat named Laurentina, and very charming. I'm told she was able to clean her ears with her toes, although she never did it in polite company. They were very happy together, and he intended to make an honest woman of her. Of course, there was the issue of his previous marriage, but he had left that life behind, and he wasn't sure what to do about it.
Laurentina was a great reader of newspapers. She read them from front to back including all the advertisements, and she particularly liked the odd little ads put in by individuals. Everything might have been quite all right for everyone, if she hadn't read them so closely. But one day she saw an ad which changed everything.
* * *
IN THE MEANTIME, back home, Johnny's widow Sylvia was not left in dire straits. She was taken in by Johnny's father, and Aunt Eve, who was the father's sister, and who was happy to look after the girl. She'd always wanted a daughter, and Sylvia was very young when they had been married.
Everyone considered her to be a widow now, and sometimes young men would pay court to her, and lately there was a young Adonis named Charles Meckler. He was a very handsome man, and tall, and strong, and of extremely good health, and he was also very intelligent and well-mannered. Aunt Eve was very pleased with Charles. Since the family now considered Sylvia to be a daughter of the house, it seemed to Aunt Eve that if she were to marry Charles, it would bring some healthy new blood into this sickly and undersized family.
But there was a problem. Unlike Johnny, no one in the family or the town forgot that Sylvia was married, and there came the question as to what to do about it. They could go to court to have Johnny declared dead -- which his father simply could not bear to do -- or they could go to court and declare that he had abandoned Sylvia after so many years, and then they could dissolve the marriage.
Aunt Eve thought that latter was simply unacceptable. She hated scandal, and the very idea that they should declare publicly that Johnny had behaved so abominably toward his young wife...well, that would be a horrible mark against the family. And since they were sure he was dead, it would be pure defamation to say he had run away.
Sylvia didn't care which they chose, because she was eager to marry her beloved Charles. However, her father-in-law and aunt argued so vehemently about it that the man had a heart attack and died.
Which put the kibosh on the wedding plans. At least for a bit.
But then there was the trouble with the textile mill. Mr. Oshman, who was partner to Johnny's father, did not like leaving things unsettled. He needed to know if Johnny was alive to inherit half the mill, or if there was some other person he should deal with. And if he had a partner, he wanted to deal with him face to face.
Mr. Oshman did not give the shake of a lamb's tail about scandal or not, and he went straight to court to get the matter settled. The judge, however, did not think there had been a proper search to be sure if Johnny was dead or alive, and he insisted that some sort of effort be made to find out.
So Oshman put advertisements in all of the major newspapers in all the big cities back east.
And it was one such ad that Laurentina found that morning, while sipping her coffee.
* * *
JOHNNY HAD NEVER changed his name, so Laurentina saw at once that the ad referred to her beloved Johnny. And after he told her his story, it was very clear that answering the ad would be of benefit to both of them. After all, if Johnny inherited a fortune, they could marry and live in comfort.
So Johnny returned home to face the music, and collect his inheritance. And it all seemed to go quite well at first. He and Sylvia hardly knew one another any more, if they ever had, and he had no objection to the idea of a divorce. Quite frankly, he just wanted to settle all the legalities, sell his share of the business, and leave.
But there was a problem.
Sylvia was showing certain signs which Aunt Eve recognized. The girl was expecting a child. Aunt Eve was horrified, scandalized and outraged. They could not possibly get divorced now. That child had to be born in wedlock. There could be no question about timing and legal confusions. And there certainly could be no moral confusions. They would have to pretend that Johnny had come back to town somewhat earlier than he did.
After much discussion, it was agreed that the divorce should be postponed. Johnny, after all, had a great deal of business to settle and would not be leaving soon anyway. However he did not want to be away form Laurentina, so he sent for her so he would not be lonely.
Sylvia was less fortunate. Aunt Eve was adamant that Charles could not come to visit. It was one thing for Johnny to behave in a scandalous way, but a lady could not have any scandal associated with her. Aunt Eve began to stew about it all, and soon she was convinced that there could be no divorce at all, ever. It was simply impossible. How could a couple with a young child split up? The courts wouldn't allow it.
"Of course they would," said Johnny. "I'll just be sure that Laurentina and I are seen gallivanting around--"
"No no no," said Eve. "Not with a baby on the way! The court would not allow a split, no matter how bad the behavior."
Which is when Laurentina revealed that they might well be two babies to consider if it came to that.
Aunt Eve nearly had apoplexy, but she had to give in. She could not have a scandal of that magnitude. She set about doing everything she socially could to ease the way to a quiet divorce.
I was born several months later, and the divorce was finalized and soon my mother Sylvia married Charles, who adopted me. Johnny married Laurentina just in time to see that their child was also born in wedlock. It was quite the happiest ending for everyone.
* * * * *
MISS WHITLEY STOPPED and leaned back with the air of someone who had just told a whole story.
"How very...bohemian," said Mr. Bandiwilt. "But what has this to do with the pair of unused baby shoes?"
"Fourteen pair of unused baby shoes," said Miss Whitley. "That was Aunt Eve's fault. My feet, you see, were much too large for ordinary baby shoes, and that was quite clear from the day I was born. Aunt Eve was horrified that someone would realize that my feet were too large to come from Whitley stock. Johnny, of course, had tiny feet. So Aunt Eve kept my feet covered up, and she went around buying baby shoes in every store in town, the tiniest size she could get. She commented loudly on how tiny my feet were, and made sure everyone knew it."
"And none of the shoes fit," said Mr. Bandiwit.
"Couldn't even get them over my toes. Of course, if only Aunt Eve had bothered to look, she'd have realized that Charles had tiny feet himself. Some big men are quite dainty in the extremities you know."
"Indeed," said the editor.
"Yes, and my mother, bless her, had feet the size of seat cushions. In any case, Aunt Eve bought all those shoes, and hid them away. Last month when she died, we found the shoes among her things. If only we'd known she was doing that, we could have sent them to Johnny and Laurentina, but it was too late, so now I should sell them. Aunt Eve spent a great deal of money on them because she wanted people to notice she was buying them. They are excellent shoes. Someone should wear them!"
And that is my explanation of the story behind Hemingway's story. (Tomorrow I'll post some Story Notes about how I came to write the story.)
In the meantime: you can read more of my short fiction in one of my two 99 cent collections:
Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup! Five Mystery Stories. Available at the Amazon Kindle Store, Kindle UK, and in multiple formats at Smashwords. Also available at the B&N Nook Store, as well as the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony and other e-retailers.
Or The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic at Amazon Kindle, Kindle UK, and Smashwords. Soon this should be available at B&N, Apple and other stores.